Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lennon and Me

Thirty years ago, I was nine years old, a fourth grader at Silas Willard Elementary. The most exciting thing in my life that year was the fact that I was attending the same school once attended by the new president of the United States. The fact that Ronald Reagan had only attended Silas Willard for one year didn't matter; his election was a powerful message to all of us that the future just maybe could hold great things. As December rolled around, the only thing on my mind was Christmas. By December 8, I had surely completed multiple drafts of my list for "Santa". I'd figured out the truth a couple years before, but I had a three-year-old sister who still believed in the old guy. My list was something I obsessed over, ranking the items I wanted most and then also adding a star system to make my preferences absolutely clear so that my parents would know what misstep on their part had the potential to ruin my Christmas. A precocious kid, I often made sure to include stores where the item could be found, prices, or the page of the JC Penney catalog that would direct them to my heart's desire.

I woke up the morning of December 9 and snuck a quick glance out my bedroom window like I did every winter morning as a child. As much as I loved school, I loved snow days even more and woke up hoping to discover a blanket of snow covering the lawn and streets and making a trip to school virtually impossible. I clung to the memory of the huge blizzard two years before that had shut schools down for a week, a week I spent building forts and sled runs and tromping through snow that came up to my waist. The morning of December 9 was clear -- no snow. Rats!

I blearily stumbled out to the living room, hoping for a good bowl of Frosted Flakes before getting dressed for the school bus I hated more than just about anything else. A typical morning at my house would usually find my dad drinking coffee and watching the news (Good Morning America, of course), Mom getting lunches packed and urging me to move a little quicker. This particular morning was different. When I walked out into the living room, my dad was standing in the middle of the room with this stunned look on his face. My mom was sitting in her chair, crying. Even in my self-centered, pre-Christmas haze, I knew this was not good. The year before, my older brother had died quite suddenly, and I immediately felt a tremendous sense of fear and panic.

"What happened?" I demanded.

"John Lennon died," my dad told me somberly as my mom continued to cry.

What came out of my mouth next still kind of embarrasses me, but remember ... I was NINE.

"Is that the guy from The Odd Couple?" I asked.

Yes, I was confusing John Lennon with Jack Lemmon. I was nine, you guys! How about we all marvel at the fact that a nine-year-old kid even knew who Jack Lemmon was rather than latch onto the fact that I didn't know who John Lennon was? (And to explain this particular oddity, I will again remind you that I was very precocious and that The Odd Couple was one of my parents' favorite movies. By the time I was nine, I had probably seen the movie three or four times -- whenever it was on television.)

My dad gave me a "are you kidding me?" look and explained, "No. John Lennon was a Beatle."

I turned at that point and looked at the television screen. They were showing a clip of the Beatles playing on the Ed Sullivan show. (I did know who the Beatles were; I just didn't know their names.) I remember suddenly feeling very sad and starting to cry. Maybe it was just seeing my mom cry; maybe it was just sensitivity at the thought of anyone dying. I like to think, though, that some of my tears stemmed from the realization of what a profound loss the world of music had just suffered.

My mom let me stay home from school that day. I wasn't sick. I think it was mostly a case of she just wanted company as she mourned. We spent the day listening to Beatles and John Lennon music. I "discovered" "Imagine" that day. Even at nine, I can remember the tremendous sense of tragic irony I felt in the song. Who could possibly want to murder someone who wrote so hopefully about a world of such beauty and peace? That just didn't seem right -- and it still doesn't.

Thirty years later, I still find myself turning to the Beatles and John for comfort, entertainment, and enlightenment. While I've become more of a Stones fan than a Beatles fan, there's this sense in me that you can't love music and not love the Beatles. It's a band you kind of take for granted. Do you have to list them as one of your favorite bands? Shouldn't it just come with the territory that if you love music, you love the Beatles? Like many, I wonder what would have happened had John lived. What music was still in him? What paths would he have blazed as he started a new chapter in his art? Would he have become (sorry) bland and adult contemporary like bandmate Paul? Or would he have found ways to continue to challenge himself as an artist and still find a way to surprise us like his old smokin' buddy Bob Dylan? We'll never know. But how lucky are we to live in a world filled with his music? How lucky were our parents to live in a world where the Beatles were releasing new albums that were filled with surprise and innovation? It still kind of stuns me to think that I once lived in a world where a Beatles reunion was a much-hoped-for possibility. And I didn't even know how lucky I was until it was too late.

So today when I get home, I'm going to curl up and spend a little time with John and his mates and find the same peace and comfort in their music that I have found for thirty years. And I'm going to keep imagining about a world where peace and love and hope are not just dreams but vivid, tangible realities.

RIP, John.

(PS -- Thanks to the intrepid reader who pointed out that all this would have happened on December 9, not December 8, so I have changed it accordingly.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lessons from Reality TV, Part Deux

When I started this blog a little over two years ago (WOW!), one of my earliest posts was a sort of serious, sort of tongue in cheek discussion about how watching reality television could make you a better person. My love for reality tv has dimmed a bit in the two years since I wrote this ode to its life lessons, but when I do tune in to see some of my favorites, I find that there are still lessons aplenty to be gleaned. And so I bring you the second installment of "How Reality TV Can Make You a Better Person."

1. Dancing with the Stars. Of all the shows I once watched pretty religiously, DWTS is the one that I have become the least enchanted with as of late. About halfway through this season, I found myself deleting episodes without watching. Part of the reason for the waning of my affection is a lack of time. With my work schedule and trying to fit in gym time and then come home and cook a healthy meal, I don't have a ton of time to devote to television, especially a two-hour behemouth like DWTS. The formula largely remains the same in terms of casting and even which celebrity gets put with which pro. The "twists" they've begun throwing in (Movie Night! Group Cha-Cha!) get a bit dull. Plus, they really are getting looser and looser with their definition of "star." Bristol Palin? Really??!!!??!??!! I did tune in to see the results last night (I only watched the last half hour because I knew the rest would be pure filler.) And there on my screen was a lesson that seriously brought tears to my eyes -- never count the old lady out. Sure, Cloris Leachman was an embarrassment, and Florence Henderson didn't get tremendously far. (I blame their ridiculous partner, Corky Ballas, for that, for turning their dances into dancing fart jokes rather than showing these women the respect they deserve.) There, hoisting up the coveted mirror ball trophy was my teenage idol Jennifer Grey. Jennifer Grey is 50. While she doesn't LOOK 50, her body is definitely 50 as she spent a large part of the season dealing with a variety of injuries, most seriously a bad back. (I can relate, having just spent a good week or so in enormous back pain!) Despite all that, despite the fact that she was in so much pain after Monday's perfect performances that she nearly didn't compete in last night's final dance off, there she was -- victorious. There is a new face to aging -- a youthful face. And yes, a portion of Jennifer's youthfulness may be owed to the plastic surgery that got rid of her Baby Houseman nose, but what I'm talking about here is a youthful attitude. Women like Jennifer Grey are proving to the world that 50 doesn't have to mean switching to polyester pants and applique sweatshirts. Women can age and still be active, sexy, trendy, and glamorous without it being a sad joke. And we can kick the asses of people half our age!

2. Project Runway: A sadder lesson was learned this season on Project Runway. All season long, there were a couple self-evident truths at work -- Mondo was a quiet genius, Gretchen was a deluded bitch. I didn't get too wrapped up in Gretchen hating, though, because I knew that Mondo would beat her in the finals and that it would be glorious in its severity. And then the unthinkable happened. Gretchen WON. Even now, I still don't get it. Even as someone who wears a lot of loose fitting, earth-toned clothing and works a sort of Ladies of the Canyon meets Annie Hall vibe on a nearly daily basis, I don't get it. Mondo's work was creative and bold and fun and youthful; Gretchen's was clearly the rejected costume design from It's Complicated. So what is the lesson here? Sometimes, creativity isn't enough. Sometimes, the good guy loses. Sometimes, the bitch wins. And it sucks.

3. America's Next Top Model: We'll see what next week's finale holds, but there may be a lesson brewing something along the lines of "Don't worry, awkward girls. A megalomaniac former super model with visions of being the next Oprah may some day find you pretty!"

4. Wife Swap: American families are screwed up. Plus, bacon is good for me.

I'm sure there are more lessons floating around out there (feel free to share in the comments), but I've got a Thanksgiving menu to plan. Now THERE'S an idea for a reality tv show . . . .

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A New Definition for Hubris

It's a slow day in my classes as students work on rough drafts and study guides which gives me a chance to catch up on some computer work -- working on the program for the fall play, writing tests, and a little net surfing. I tend to have Twitter always up on my computer because it's a way to keep up with the world outside the school walls and to send quick messages home. (These messages usually consist of "Hey, can you grab some lettuce from the store?" or "Did you remember to drop the Netflix in the mail?") I follow a lot of different people on Twitter, a lot of comics and writers and people whose work I generally enjoy. One of those people is Community creator Dan Harmon. Today he tweeted a link that led me to the story of Monica Gaudio.

Monica writes for a website called Gode Cookery , a site devoted to medieval cooking. This site featured a story on the medieval origins of the apple pie, including two recipes for the pie that date back to the fourteenth and sixteenth century. It's an interesting article, to be sure. Before you think that my cooking obsession has gone so overboard that I am scouring the net looking for medieval dessert recipes, let me tell you more of the story.

Monica was contacted by a friend asking her how she had managed to get her work in print. Monica couldn't answer the question because she didn't even know her work was in print. It turns out that the magazine Cook's Source had taken Monica's original article and published it virtually word for word. They gave her a byline, but never was she contacted for permission or offered any sort of financial compensation for her work. Nothing!

Monica contacted the magazine to find out what was going on and was asked what she wanted. Her demands were pretty simple (and completely fair): she wanted an apology on the magazine's Facebook page, an apology in print, and a $130 donation made to the Columbia School of Journalism (where we would hope ripping someone's work off is strongly discouraged).

The response that Monica received was shocking and, frankly, insulting. Editor Judith Griggs condescendingly informed Monica that anything published on the web is public domain.

The response continued:
"you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”"*

* this response can be found on MANY websites and blogs reporting on this, but I took this specifically from Geeko System .

Ummmmmmm . . . where do I even begin?

First of all, what is published on the web is NOT public domain, especially when said content is explicitly copyrighted, as Monica's page was. Credit has to be given -- whether it's from the New York Times, Gode Cookery, or The Ginger Files.

Secondly, I challenge Griggs's assertion that this sort of thing happens a lot and that, therefore, excuses her behavior. There's also a lot of binge drinking, drug abuse, and sexual assault happening on college campuses, so is that all okay now, too? Shouldn't magazines be a model of good journalism rather than displaying the sorts of grievous ethical violations that would get a college sophomore booted off campus?

Even more alarming is the defensive posture Griggs adopts here. Telling Monica that her piece was poorly written and in desperate need of editing is pretty crummy, even crummier when you consider that the poor writing Monica supposedly displayed was her use of the original Olde English her recipes were originally written in. (I won't comment on the many errors in Griggs's response. I'm too classy for that.)

I won't even get into the clear fact that Griggs has no sense of irony. The offense she takes at Monica's suggestion that a donation be made to the Columbia School of Journalism, arguing that the school is wealthy and doesn't need the money. While you could argue that a publication that receives advertising revenue should certainly be able to pony up a small sum for a story they ripped off (and did not PAY to publish), the deeper argument lies in that Monica is not asking for that money to in any way enrich the Columbia coffers. She's trying to make a point about journalism and ethics -- a fact lost on Griggs.

There are so many more reasons why this issue is so troubling. As an English teacher who routinely has to bust students for plagiarism, this is sickening. If it's okay for Cook's Source to rip off the internet (and profit from it via circulation sales), why isn't it okay for my freshmen to copy and paste their book reports from Wikipedia? And why am I giving them a failing grade for doing so? The point lost on Ms. Griggs is that the internet is not, in fact, public domain. Someone went to the work of thinking those thoughts, writing those words, and for anyone BUT that person to then take those words and seek to profit from it -- whether financially, academically, or otherwise -- is just plain wrong. A journalist with three decades of experience should know better, especially when the fifteen year old high school student sitting in front of me does.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Education of a Teacher

This fall has found me finding a renewed passion for my profession. Not that my passion had necessarily waned significantly, but I often feel it dim as I struggle with discipline issues, various student dramas, long hours with a pay that doesn't necessarily reflect the many hours put in, and occasional boredom with the subject matter. The past several weeks, though, have given me some time for reflection and to really think about why I do what I do and even how I do what I do.

The path to this renewal and reflection began with my agreement to accept a student teacher this fall. I'd often refused to take a student teacher in the past, feeling that I was still too new at my job to really be effective in mentoring someone. What could I possibly teach a young teacher when I felt like I still had so much to learn myself? When I was approached last spring about the possibility of hosting a student teacher, I finally felt like I was comfortable enough in my professional skin to pull this off. I've been doing this for ten years now. Certainly that was enough time, right?

While the actual mentoring process has been a fascinating experience (bringing back such memories of my own time as a student teacher), the process has also helped me find a new love for my job. The thing is that, once I handed over my students to another, I missed my kids. I missed standing up there and talking to them and trying to guide them through the intricacies of writing, reading, and speaking. I found myself yearning to make lesson plans and grade essays. I've taken back two of my classes this week, and the renewed vigor is exhilarating.

Because someone else was essentially doing my job all day, I found myself with a lot of downtime. I do not do downtime well. At first, it was actually great. I was able to get a ton of other work done -- work for the fall play, speech cuttings, lesson planning (I am planned through the end of the semester in all my courses . . . yeah . . . I know!). Eventually, though, I found myself at the end of my to-do list. Planning through the end of the school year seemed a bit excessive (albeit tempting). I could only surf so much Internet before boredom set in. Finally, another teacher handed me a copy of a book that really left me aching to return to the classroom.

The book was called The Education of a Teacher. It was written by a former colleague, Susan Van Kirk. Sue was my department chair my first year of teaching and was a patient, kind, intelligent mentor as I faced the trials of that first year. One of the reasons why it's making the rounds at my school is that it is about our high school. Sue taught at our high school for over 30 years. Her book tells stories of her experiences first as a young teacher in the late 1960s and early 70s through her retirement and move to teaching college level education courses at a local college. While some of the stories are unique experiences to this particular school (such as the school board's decision in the early 1980's to essentially gut the school for renovations -- while classes were still going on in the building), many are universal, whether it is dealing with the sudden death of a student or fighting censorship at the hands of bullying parents. Many of the stories are quite moving. More than once I found myself fighting tears as I lived vicariously through Sue and faced the same losses and grief that she did. Other stories, though, are full of wit and joy and serve as reminders of the very human faces that teachers encounter.

While the book helped me pass my time, it also made my ache to return to the classroom even greater. Sue's book is about more than the classroom; it's about the opportunity teachers have to be counselors and friends at times when students need them the most. I've come to terms with the fact that I am often a bit of a surrogate mom for many of my students, giving them advice and compassion when both seem completely absent. I've spent many long hours after school talking kids through traumas, both academic and personal. I've mediated, cajoled, supported, and led kids through many difficult times. Sue's book was a reminder of that relationship, of that responsibility teachers have. It all comes back to that idea of being a role model and showing students what adult life can be. I realized that I was missing out on the opportunity to forge those bonds with new classes of students and would be returning to desks filled with virtual strangers that I would now have to work double time to connect with. Sue's book made me realize that I AM a teacher and that there is absolutely nothing on this earth that I would rather be. Well, outside of Mrs. Jon Hamm, that is, but that's another kind of book altogether.
I urge my readers (all ten of you!) to go out and get a copy of this book. It's available through a variety of online booksellers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For teachers, this book will reaffirm your love of your craft. For non-teachers, it will provide a glimpse into the life of this profession. For anyone, it will move, entertain, and inspire you in a truly profound way.


I've been busy with work and life and all that jazz lately, so I've not been very good about posting. I have a couple things brewing in the noggin, so look forward to something soon.

In the meantime, it appears that I missed a bit of a milestone for The Ginger Files. According to the ol' ticker off to the side here, I've had 10,000 visits to my website since I started it in June 2008. Wow. Thanks. Granted, I know that probably 9,900 of those visits are from my best friend Danielle, but I'm still honored that some of you have been so loyal. I promise to reward it with some good posts soon!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What Alternative Do I Have?

Once upon a time, I was an obsessive music fan. I had a CD collection with easily more than 1000 discs (probably closer to 2ooo, to be honest). I read Rolling Stone and Spin obsessively to discover what was new, who was out there, what I needed to get my hands on. I worked to compile a music collection that was reflective not just of my tastes but of the very genesis of music itself. I owned CDs by artists I didn't particularly like (Neil Young, for example) because I recognized that his importance to music as a whole outweighed my own personal tastes. At the same time, I attended concerts on a pretty regular basis -- taking as many opportunities as I could to bask in the beauty of live music and experiencing a wide range of artists.

Those days are, sadly, long over. Over the course of the past decade or so, I slowly dismantled my CD collection, selling large chunks of it off to clear space and get some extra cash. I rarely if ever go to concerts anymore outside of the occasional Phish show. (I can't even remember the last non-Phish show I attended.) As I settled into my 30's, my priorities changed. No longer crashing in Mom's basement, I actually had financial obligations -- rent, utilities, car payments, insurance, groceries -- that ate up all that lovely disposable income I'd had when Mom was taking care of all those expenses for me. Suddenly, the new Beastie Boys CD or catching the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their latest tour wasn't nearly as important as, say, electricity. With a full-time job, taking off at a moment's notice to catch a show hours away became a lot more difficult, too, especially when I have to wake up for work before the sun the next morning.

Age became a factor, too. Here in the penthouse of my 30's, I realize that I just don't have the energy (or sometimes even the will) to try the sorts of things I did in my 20's. Dancing my ass off for hours at Lollapalooza? Camping out to buy the new Nirvana CD? Staying up all night to drive home from an Oasis concert in Chicago? "Easy!" cried my 20-year-old self. "Easy," cautions my 30-year old self. I reached a point where I realized I didn't want to be the creepy old lady jamming out to the band and making all the kids uncomfortable. And as music changed and evolved, it just became more and more difficult to keep up with what was new and cool, especially when so much of the music considered cool was so stomach-churning to me.

There is this part of me that mourns, though, the loss of my indie cred. I recently started subscribing to Rolling Stone again (sadly, I did this for the political coverage rather than the music culture that had me subscribing for nearly 20 years). A couple nights ago, I was perusing a recent issue (with Roger Waters on the cover -- hey! I know that guy!). I popped to the back page where the music charts are listed. As I scanned down the list of albums topping the Billboard charts, I grew more and more disheartened to see so few names I recognized. Of the ones I DID recognize, I could only name a song or two by a small minority of them. It was even more grim when I looked over at the college charts that had once served as my CD shopping list. Who the heck are these people?? (I will admit to being intrigued by a band called Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin. I think I might have to check those kids out.)

Of course, with today's technology, I could easily get back into the music world. Kids today have it so easy! I can remember driving an hour or more to find cool little indie record stores to buy the cool new underground music that I could not find at the local Musicland. (Hey, guys, remember Musicland??) I can remember staying up late to watch MTV's 120 Minutes, often taking notes so I could remember the next morning what awesome band I had discovered the night before. (I saw the MTV debut of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Yes, my mind was blown!) Now, all I'd have to do is pop online and check out a iTunes or a bevy of sites that could lead me right where I wanted. As argued in the first installment of what promises to be an excellent series on 90's music at The AV Club called "Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?" , there is no underground anymore. It's all out there and above ground if you know where to look for it online.

So why am I not jumping into this pool of music? Maybe I'm lazy. Maybe I'm too settled in with the music I discovered 20 years ago and still love. Maybe it's just that I don't have all that time and disposable income to really tackle it all with the same passion and fervor of yesteryear. It all seems so overwhelming. And it probably doesn't help that the couple of times I have dipped my toe back in the water, I've felt like I was swimming in rancid water rather than the sweet waters of my youth. Sometimes, the music seems like carbon copies of stuff I used to listen to -- why listen to a pale imitation of The Clash when I can just pull out my old copy of London Calling and listen to the real thing?

Rock music, especially the music that meant to much to me back then, was music of and for the young. Sure, I still listen to Jane's Addiction and U2 and all those bands of my youth. I'm not saying that older people can't listen to rock music. But the music of those bands from our youth belong to us and hold meaning for us just as the music of today belongs to and holds meaning for the youth of today. I can't co-opt their youth. And why would I when I can revel in mine? As great as I'm sure Arcade Fire or Never Shout Never are, give me The Pixies anyday because they knew what it was like . . . in 1989.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Another Facebook in the Crowd

A miraculous thing happened Saturday afternoon. I found myself with several hours of free time at my disposal and $10 in my pocket. Knowing such an occurrence will be uncommonly rare as I head into the meat of drama and speech seasons, I quickly hopped in the car with my sis and headed to the multiplex to see The Social Network, a movie both of us had been dying to see since catching the amazing trailer a couple months ago. (That haunting version of Radiohead's "Creep" sold me within seconds. The sis was hooked when Justin Timberlake popped on screen) As the critical buzz around the movie increased, my NEED to see the movie grew.

In case you've been hanging out in a cave, The Social Network is the story of the founding of Facebook. The film posits that the online addiction shared by millions of us worldwide was fraught with betrayal and chicanery and that the whole thing really boiled down to one socially awkward nerd wanting to get back at the girl who dumped him. In the process, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes a superstar, billionaire, and pariah all at the same time. He seems to steal the kernel of an idea from Facebook from the wealthy, successful, studly Winklevoss twins (both played here, courtesy of some amazing technical wizardry, by Arnie Hammer). He gets his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to put up an initial investment of $1000 to start his fledgling site and makes Saverin CFO of their company, then called "THE Facebook." Eventually, Saverin is pushed out of the company in a scheme seemingly orchestrated by programming superstud Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), better known as the man behind Napster, but which seems to be driven more by Zuckerberg's jealousy that Saverin was invited to join an exclusive club at Harvard. Lawsuits erupt as the Winklevosses and Saverin go after Zuckerberg and Facebook, and yet Zuckerberg remains a detached, passive aggressive loner at the center of it all. Zuckerberg seems desperate for friendship and companionship, and yet he continually betrays those who seem most likely to give him what he wants. As Saverin tells him during one of their confrontations, "I was your only friend!" Despite all of his success, we are left at the end with a Zuckerberg who is clearly lonely. The final image of him sitting at his laptop and hitting the refresh button over and over again manages to be both funny and sad -- a haunting end to an exceptional film.

What I find, perhaps, most exciting about The Social Network is that breaks so many rules of what seems to constitute a "successful" film nowadays and yet it dominated the box office and was critically lauded all weekend. Here is a movie that doesn't feature a tremendous amount of action (not a single explosion in two hours!) and no big stars (outside of Timberlake who isn't really known for being a movie star). It is a movie dominated by dialogue and a protagonist who is largely unlikable. (More than once, I found myself wishing someone would punch Zuckerberg in the face.) It is a movie about intellectual creation and betrayal. I can't help but wonder if the film were about, say, Google or ebay instead of Facebook, would people be so anxious to see it? Has our Facebook addiction compelled so many to see a movie that is so out of their wheelhouse? Maybe, maybe not.

The thing is, regardless of the actual subject matter, The Social Network is a pretty tremendous film. It helps that the script was written by Aaron Sorkin, a writer who is a master of intelligent dialogue. The opening conversation between Zuckerberg and the girl who inspires his quest for achievement (played by soon-to-be superstar Rooney Mara . . . aka the future Lisbeth Salander . . .aka the actual GIRL of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is a stunning achievement in dialogue -- quick, witty, intelligent. It's the kind of dialogue that made The West Wing one of the greatest television shows perhaps of all time. The only thing that was shocking for Sorkin lovers was that the whole conversation took place while sitting rather than roaming hallways. As the credits played after the opening scene, I turned to my sis and whispered, "I love Aaron Sorkin." His scripts never pander and always expect his audience to be literate, intelligent, and able to keep up with his often breakneck pace. I'm not sure there's another writer out there who could have given this story life with such intelligence and sincerity. I hope Sorkin has cleared off some space for the Oscar he's sure to win for Best Adapted Screenplay in February.

Sorkin's script benefits, too, from falling into the hands of the brilliant David Fincher, who, along with Christopher Nolan, is my favorite director out there. Fincher has this way of caressing a script, bringing out the grit and heart to any story. While this film may seem a departure for fans of Fincher's early work like Seven and Fight Club, it seems to be keeping in line with his more recent forays into quieter fare like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher is a master of bringing complicated characters to the screen. He always seems keenly aware of the fact that both light and dark exist in each of us, with Fight Club being the most literal example of that thesis. Zuckerberg is both likable and loathable, sometimes all at the same time. You laugh and admire him for his disdainful attitude during depositions while still thinking to yourself, "What a dick!" Fincher is also a master of brilliant composition, and his technical wizardry is steeped in such realism that it seems completely organic and never a case of trick camera work. My sis was shocked when I told her that the Winklevoss twins were one actor -- a testament to Fincher's mastery at pulling those shots off without drawing attention to them.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who left the theater feeling at least a modicum of guilt over my Facebook addiction. Was I unwittingly feeding the beast of Zuckerberg's ego by spending so much time checking statuses and playing Farmville? Did my entertainment come at the expense of decent people like Saverin who were screwed over by Zuckerberg's quest for success? The unfortunate thing is that Facebook has become such a part of the fabric of our lives that walking away now seems nearly impossible. Where Zuckerberg succeeded (and someone like Sean Parker failed) is in tapping in to our most primal needs -- for friendship and connection to others -- and putting all of that just a mouse click away. Dick or not, the guy is a genius of the human psyche even if his own psyche seems so very damaged.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hooray for Culture

When I took over the reigns of Drama Club a few years ago, one of the goals I had was to try to get the kids out to see as much theatre as I could. We are lucky in that we live in an area with access to a lot of live theatre thanks to three area colleges and an active community theatre group. Over the course of the past three or so years, my students have had access to a wide variety of theatre experiences -- from modern comedies like Moonlight and Magnolias to 20th century classics like The Crucible to legendary classics like Hamlet. For a lot of these kids, their participation in a Drama Club "outing" is their first exposure to live theatre outside of what we create here at school. To this day, I have students who saw Hamlet as freshmen and talk about it with such reverence and love.

Last night, my students had the opportunity to see a local college production of The Learned Ladies by Moliere. I'm a huge fan of Moliere (I almost love him as much as Shakespeare) and was excited to see the show since The Learned Ladies is a Moliere show I've not gotten to see before. A couple of my Drama Club kids were psyched because they took my Drama class last fall and had loved reading The Miser. There were several new members of Drama Club going with us, which always excites me since it means new experiences. (My older kids are old pros at the theatre outings. They border on jaded sometimes!)

In all, about 20 of us descended on the college last night. Within minutes of the lights going out and the show starting, though, I have to admit I was a little nervous. The show went for a highly stylized reproduction of the traditional 17th Century French style in costumes, makeup, and even movement. I wasn't sure how my kids, especially my newer kids, would respond to what can seem very artificial and lacking in sincerity. As the first act progressed, though, I began to relax as I heard the kids around me laughing ... and laughing in all the right places! At intermission, their excitement was palpable. One senior girl came up to me and said that this was "almost as good as Shakespeare." A sophomore girl told me she couldn't wait to get online and post a status on Facebook about how "epic" the show was. A junior boy declared the as being the ultimate "nerd show" and meant it lovingly. I honestly could not have been prouder of my kids. They were so well-behaved, so responsive, and so appreciative. It was lovely to pop on Facebook and see all the statuses imploring people to go see the show. After the show, the cast had a brief question and answer session, and a couple of my kids commented and participated in a really positive, intelligent way. (I will say, though, they were probably more excited when I raised my hand to ask a question -- asking the cast which character they thought was Moliere's "surrogate". I heard one student whisper that my question would be "epic." I guess that's their new word . . . "epic.")

A colleague of mine once told me that an unofficial part of our job is to be role models to our students of how their lives COULD be -- that they could escape their backgrounds that are sometimes filled with poverty and limited access to culture, that they could live lives of intellect and creativity. It's a mission I have held close to my heart ever since that conversation, which is why I strive to get my Drama Club kids into theatres so that they experience Shakespeare, Moliere, Miller, and more and get the opportunity to glimpse new ideas and ways of life. The fact that roughly 20 students walked out of that theatre last night with a newfound love of Moliere warms my heart in ways I can't possibly even express. As I look ahead to a year where the local college seasons include Euripedes, Chekhov, Hellman, Shepard, Ionesco, and more, I can't wait to take more kids and show them the wide world of theatre that lies out there for them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Get Ready to Feel Old

Nominees for the 2011 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced today. A look over the list is sure to make someone in the penthouse of his/her 30's feel incredibly old.

The List:
Alice Cooper
Beastie Boys
Bon Jovi
Neil Diamond
Dr. John
J. Geils Band
LL Cool J
Darlene Love
Laura Nyro
Donna Summer
Joe Tex
Tom Waits
Chuck Willis

Yup, the Beastie Boys and Bon Jovi could potentially be in the Hall of Fame. That means that both bands have careers that are 25 years old (or more). Didn't License to Ill just come out, like, yesterday? Was it really that long ago that I was sitting in the staff room of my high school newspaper mocking the lyrical genius (or lack thereof) of "Livin' on a Prayer"? Of course, let's ignore the fact that I have to take off my glasses to read liner notes (because I'm too damn stubborn to break down and admit I need bifocals) and just shake our heads in disbelief that so much time has passed.

Not making the final ballot this year was The Smiths. That's just not right. Put "Girlfriend in a Coma" or "How Soon Is Now?" up against anything Bon Jovi has ever recorded and then tell me which one is Hall of Fame material.

"Bad Medicine" indeed.

PS -- How is Neil Diamond not already in the Hall of Fame? How do KISS and Joan Jett not make the final ballot? Add that to the list of things that make me shake my head in grave disappointment.

Rock Out With Your Idol Out

Saturday was a big day for me, friends. It found me traveling to Chicago, shopping (one of my favorite pastimes!), eating Indian food, and going to the theatre.

"Big deal," you may be thinking to yourselves. "Outside of the locale and the food, those are all things you do pretty regularly, Mel!"

Ah, but there's a difference here. Saturday night, not only did I go to the theatre, not only did I go see a professional touring production of a Tony-nominated musical starring a Tony nominee himself, BUT said Tony nominee just so happened to be the one, the only Constantine Maroulis and the show was Rock of Ages.

Yes, friends, Saturday night, I found myself in the same room as an American Idol . . . for the first time.

As obsessive as I am about American Idol, until Saturday, I had yet to have the opportunity to experience an Idol live and in person. The Idol tours never come too close to wear I live, and the thrifty Yankee in me has a hard time shelling out $50 to go see a karaoke concert. For every opportunity to see Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood or Adam Lambert, after all, you're also stuck seeing Nikki McKibben, Scott Savol, or Katie Stevens. So not worth the pain!

Now, I would have been excited to see the show regardless of Constantine's appearance in it. I love professional theatre, and Rock of Ages is a show that has intrigued me since I first read reviews of it when it opened on Broadway. In a nutshell, the show is kind of standard boy-meets-girl/misunderstandings-lead-girl-to-another/boy-gets-girl. It's a rather featherweight plot. What makes Rock of Ages stand out is that it tells its story using classic hair metal music of the 1980's. Yeah, we're talking Whitesnake, Night Ranger, Survivor, REO, Poison . . . the music that pretty much provided the soundtrack for my adolescence. Every song played came attached with a memory for me, even when the song in question wasn't one I remember liking all that much back in the day.

It's a show with a featherweight plot and cheesy music, filled with cliches and meta moments that break the fourth wall -- things I often cringe at when I encounter them in theatre. So why did I leave the theatre Saturday night with a huge grin on my face?

It wasn't just Constantine, although I will say the guy was awesome. I was a big Constantine fan back when he was a contestant on Idol back during season four. He was cute, talented, and eliminated much too soon. (The fact that Scott Savol outlasted him still sticks in my craw!) Constantine has a real charm onstage, an odd combination of confidence and "aw, shucks" humility that serves him well. He has spent his post-Idol years establishing a pretty nice reputation for himself on Broadway, having appeared in Rent and The Wedding Singer before tackling Rock of Ages (and earning himself a Tony nomination in the process). It would be interesting to see him in something a little more serious, but the fact is the guy works well in this sort of lighter fare and the show rests pretty mightily on his shoulders.

What I loved about the show outside of Constantine, though, was the absolute joy that seemed to fill the stage and, by association, the audience. The cast seemed to be having a blast every single second that they were onstage, and they put everything out there. As the show went on, you could feel the audience relaxing into the show, so much so that by the second act, the audience was singing along . . . loudly. Once you get over your snobbery and release the notion of theatre having to be serious art (it can't all be Shakespeare and Chekhov, friends!) and let the nostalgia and joy wash over you, Rock of Ages becomes a tremendous experience. There was this sense of community that spread through the audience as we all reveled in hearing these songs from our youth (I would guess that the audience largely fell in the 25-45 demographic).

Rock of Ages is also incredibly self-aware. It is a show that knows it is not "serious theatre." It's almost as if you can see the show shrug and say, "You know what? Who cares? Let's just rock out!" More than once, characters engage in these meta moments that wink at the audience and invite us in on the joke that a show featuring the music of Poison, Quiet Riot, and Twisted Sister could find a place on Broadway along with Sondheim and Weber. The fact of the matter is that the show DOES find its place and is filled with a lot of heart and soul. Sometimes, you're in the mood for Sondheim, and sometimes, you're in the mood for Survivor. Thank goodness for Rock of Ages for letting us have our theatre and our Journey all in one sitting.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prep Like Me

I reacted to last week's appearance of Lisa Birnbach on The Colbert Report the way some people might react to hearing that Michael Jordan was going to be playing a little pick-up ball at the court down the street.

I can hear you already -- who the heck is Lisa Birnbach?

Lisa Birnbach is the author of The Official Preppy Handbook. Released in 1980, the book was a satire of the preppy, WASP culture of New England. It was filled with pictures and advice on how to live the preppy life. It was an utterly hilarious piece of wry satire.

In 1980, I was nine. (Go ahead, kids. Do the math.) My definition of humor began and ended with Garfield. I would spend hours roaring with laughter over the antics of the lasagna-loving cat. I did not understand satire and would not understand satire for several more years.

Nine-year-old Mel did not understand that The Official Preppy Handbook was supposed to be funny. When a copy of the book somehow found its way into my hands (and I'm not entirely sure how it happened), I saw it not as a parody but rather as a Bible. For the next several years, my dog-eared copy of the book was my constant companion. I would read it with religious zeal. My wardrobe became dominated by polo shirts, khakis, and boat shoes. (How I loved my boat shoes!) My ultimate wish list book became the LL Bean catalog. I became a rabid tennis fan (although my complete inability to play the game would always frustrate me -- coordination and athleticism are not my friends!) I can remember getting into a huge fight with my dad when he informed me that I would NOT be sent away to boarding school when I hit ninth grade. (Please remember that I grew up in Illinois . . . there aren't a ton of boarding schools here in the Midwest, especially not the kind I dreamed of -- namely Eastland Academy from The Facts of Life. My sister accuses me of wanting to be Blair Warner, but in truth, I really wanted to be Natalie Green -- chubby, funny, creative . . . I had Natalie Green written all over me!)

As I grew older and entered high school and college, I took tentative steps away from the preppy life. My polo shirts and penny loafers were replaced by tie-dyed t-shirts and Birkenstocks. I no longer dreamed of BMW's and country club life. And yet I still got the LL Bean catalog. I still ascribed to so many of the beliefs and attitudes that I first encountered in the book -- the snobbery of which my sister so often accuses me most likely began the day I picked that book up.

As Lisa Birnbach releases a new book (True Prep) this month about the preppy life, I find myself falling back into some of those habits, too. I sit here typing this wearing an LL Bean polo shirt and khakis. There's an LL Bean boat and tote sitting next to me that could probably be featured on the "what's in the preppy bag" pages of her new book. But I also sit here wearing Birkenstock clogs and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In my old age, perhaps I've finally found a way to bridge the gap between the preppydom of my youth and the Boho sensibilities of my, um, not so youth. I've discovered a comfort in the timelessness of preppydom even if I don't ascribe to all of the beliefs I once did. And maybe a little of it is just the realization that a nearly 40-year-old woman in punk rock t-shirts and ripped jeans (yup, I wore those, too) isn't as cute as it used to be.

And isn't it funny how so much in life comes full circle? Who among us hasn't found ourselves digging out an old CD we haven't listened to in ages or easing into a beat up old t-shirt from our youth? I've even found myself thinking that driving a station wagon might not be such a bad idea. I heard the other day on the radio that the bulk of our personality is determined by the time we enter first grade, so maybe it's just a case of our adult lives being devoted to unpacking all that stuff that was established decades ago and rediscovering parts of ourselves we thought we'd lost. And for me, maybe that's what rediscovering my prep is all about.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Style Idol

Yes, I know it's the off season for my Idol ramblings, so those of you who dread reading my comments on the juggernaut that is/was Idol, just click away and ignore this post. I could not, however, let today's announcement of the new judging panel happen without some sort of comment.

For those of you who missed the news, Fox today announced that the judges for the ninth season of American Idol would be Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler.


This news only compounds my worries about the future of the show I have loved so dearly. Last May, you remember I voiced my concerns that the show seems intent on rewarding mediocrity over talent. After watching a plethora of talent be shown the door while middle of the road "real" people, I talked about how the blame for this can be equally shared between the judges who select pretty over interesting and then pimp the better "stories" and the voting public that floods the phone lines in favor of their favorite favor of vanilla.

The saving grace of all this nonsense was, to me, Simon Cowell. Simon provided a much needed voice of reason time and time again. Not that Simon was perfect (oh, God, no!), but he wasn't afraid to hurt feelings and bruise egos that needed to be reigned in. When more worthy contestants like Tamyra Grey, Chris Daughtry, Melinda Doolittle, and others were shown the door, you felt Simon's disappointment as acutely as you felt your own. Simon was the kindred spirit of the discerning viewer, and those of us who consider Idol a true talent contest and not a personality contest valued his presence as our voice.

But now who do we have?

Will Jennifer Lopez let her diva flag fly high enough to become the voice of wisdom and sanity? Will she be willing to crush egos and dash dreams with the wit and wisdom employed by Cowell? Or will her own self-image drive her to take the Ellen highway and dish out critiques about how cute people are rather than how tuneless their performances were?

Can Steven Tyler be trusted to be sober and coherent enough to give an honest, helpful critique? Yes, we lived through the loopy Paula years, but we had Simon there to temper the effects of whatever was lurking in Paula's Coke cup. Paula provided that cashmere glove before Cowell bitch slap brought tears to the eyes. Watching her lucidity get further and further away was entertaining, but there were also times when it was counterproductive to the show's mission.

And Jesus Christ, Randy is still there. Without a doubt, he has been the most useless member of the panel in recent years. Seriously, I think the dude is an automaton who is programmed with roughly five set critiques -- "You could sing the phone book, dawg, "For me for you, that wasn't your best performance, dawg," "It was a little pitchy, dawg," "You worked it out, dawg," and "It was just a'ight, dawg." When was the last time you heard Randy give a critique that didn't include one of those comments? He is a waste of space, and yet he lives on. At least Kara last year made a real effort to up her game and give pretty solid, thoughtful, useful critiques. Randy was too busy booing his co-worker to actually pay attention to the task at hand. Shameful.

So now here we are with an idiot, a diva, and a train wreck who sit in judgement of kids who just want a glimmer of success. Will any of them have the cojones to tell it like it is? Or will we be subjected to a season full of Haley Scarnatos and Mike Lynche's just "doing their thing, dawg"? And really, how much help can a washed-up diva, an aging rocker, and a bass player really be?

Well, look on the bright side . . . it'll probably make my blog more entertaining come January.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On the Right Track

Yes, I've been absent from these pages for several weeks. Sorry! The start of the school year has been a bit overwhelming as I juggle teaching, supervising a student teacher, getting Drama Club and Speech Team geared up for the year, and handle my personal life. The big change, of course, has been my ongoing mission to get myself in some semblance of a healthy shape. After a summer of concerted healthy eating, I've kicked it up a notch this fall with the addition of exercise.

Here's one of my dirty little secrets: I love working out. I do. I love the feeling of muscles stretching and building as I put them through their paces -- whether it's on the elliptical, a bike, or lifting weights. I love the feeling of a healthy sweat, an "earned" sweat. I love dropping into a "zone" where I can pop on my iPod, slough off the stress of the day, and just be one with me, myself, and I. Once upon a time, I was a religious worshipper at the altar of exercise. I had a Y membership and would spend nearly 2 hours every day working out. It was during this time that I lost over 100 pounds. And then I got lazy and skipping the gym became easier and easier until I found myself cancelling that Y membership and letting the flab return as I shoveled more and more unhealthy foods down my throat. Part of it was fueled by an increasingly packed work schedule, part of it by a brief bout of depression, and part of it by hideous laziness. I was frustrated as the clothes I had purchased during my weight loss became tighter and tighter and I found myself easing myself back into the pants that had once been shoved in the back of the closet for falling down whenever I wore them. But rather than letting that frustration fuel a return to better eating and exercise, it just helped me spiral into worse and worse habits.

I'd like to say that my return to a healthier lifestyle was spurred by some grand revelation, but more than anything, it was fueled by the fact that I was having a harder and harder time finding clothes in my closet that would fit. Yes, folks, it was the thrifty Yankee who kicked my ass into gear by refusing to go out and spend money on bigger pants. The thrifty Yankee convinced me to begin the process of carefully monitoring everything that went in my mouth and to take advantage of the free access I had to the community college fitness center after having taught a class there this summer. The thrifty Yankee is smart and knows how to bribe the not-so-thrifty side of me -- promising new clothes as a reward for good behavior. As the pounds slowly began drifting away this summer, I added new clothes to my wardrobe -- in a smaller size than I wore last spring. I bought new pants, new tops, new workout clothes.

Now, as September nears its end, I've lost just a little over 25 pounds. I've already reached a point where I can spend a little more time doing cardio without feeling like I'm going to pass out from exhaustion. I am flooded with a renewed confidence in myself -- a confidence it's honestly been awhile since I've felt. I know that I am still in the early stages of this journey to a healthier me, but I feel like I've maybe turned a corner and that those days of sitting on the couch shoving potato chips down my throat just may be a thing of the past.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tech Your Way to Fitness

A week ago, I stumbled across this article on the NY Times website. I will confess I was almost immediately inspired. As many readers know, I've devoted a huge portion to this summer working to develop healthier eating habits. For the most part, that work has been successful. I've managed to incorporate significantly healthier foods into my diet. I've become mindful of what I put in my mouth and still not go to the crazy extreme of completely banishing foods that I love. This week, I began working out again at a local fitness center. It was hard seeing how out of shape I've become compared to what I used to be able to handle at the gym a couple years ago, but I've felt amazing over the course of the past several days feeling muscles coming to life and burning those calories.

I have kept coming back in my mind, though, to the NY Times article. I like the sort of accountability this author created -- a sort of "check in" where he (and others) could watch his progress or see his stumbles. If I have the Twitterverse to account to, will I be more likely to pass by the French fries and grab that side salad instead? Will I go to the gym so I can report it to my followers?

I've decided to experiment with it, so I created a Twitter account called "GettingMelFit." Feel free to follow me and watch my progress. The more followers I have, the more incentive I'll have to keep it up.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I'm Still Here

Friends, the 2010-2011 school year is officially underway. It's been a long week as I've struggled to get back into the swing of things. There have been a lot of changes in room 207 this year. I have more sections of my English Fundamentals class than ever before. We've completely revamped our English I curriculum. There were a lot of things that I was really a bit concerned about as I walked back into my classroom.

So far, though, so good. Despite the fact that Fundamentals students tend to be on the lower end of the academic scale (in other words, juniors and seniors who are not particularly stellar students), my classes have been responding well to the first week of lessons. My freshmen are crazy about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The biggest challenge I've faced this week is time management. After a summer of a pretty lax schedule, it takes a little time to get used to balancing prepping for three different courses, particularly when I've added more work for myself through the introduction of journals into all my classes except Speech.

I am also hosting a student teacher for the first time ever. She's a terrific young woman from my alma mater -- eager, enthusiastic, and full of incredible ideas. I'm almost jealous of her getting to stand on the threshold of this career path and that optimism and hope that envelopes you at that stage in your career. I'm still passionate about my career, but there are definitely some bruises on that passion after having been battered about by apathy and hostility during the ten years of my career. There are days when I have to work harder to see the good in some kids and when my patience appears to have taken the first coach outta Dodge.

But I'm still here.

This week has been full of reminders of why that passion still burns inside me, though, despite the bruises. There is the exhilaration of having your students remember even the most trivial details from a presentation. Or having a student come running in to class to tell you how much he loves the book we're reading in class. Or getting emails and phone calls from former students to tell you how wonderfully they're doing in college.

And then there was my day's end today. Yesterday, we had our first Drama Club meeting. Forty-two kids packed themselves into my classroom to get audition information for the fall play, cheer loudly when I announced the spring musical (Grease), and elect their officers. After school today, a young man (let's call him Antonio) came into my room to get audition information. I'd seen Antonio at the meeting last night, and I have to admit I kind of thought he was maybe there with a friend.

A little background.... when he was a freshman, Antonio was in my English I class. In the entire year I had Antonio, I don't think I heard him say even one word. He was so quiet and shy, very insecure. A lot of that stemmed from the fact that English was not Antonio's first language, and he was struggling mightily with school because he lacked the basic vocabulary teachers took for granted he would have. Many teachers worked to help Antonio, providing alternate versions of tests with an easier vocabulary, after school tutoring, et cetera. Antonio managed to work hard and pass English I, and I only saw him in passing last year as he headed down the hall to his English II class. I heard through the grapevine that he was working hard and doing well.

And now, here was Antonio asking for audition information. He looked at me with these amazing big brown eyes of his (he's kind of a little guy but cute as a button) and said so earnestly, "I want to be an actor!" He went on to ask me questions about the play -- would he have to sing? Did any of the characters have accents? His enthusiasm and earnestness floored me. If I hadn't known better, I would never have believed this was the same Antonio who was a virtual mute his freshman year. I nearly wept after he left and I explained to my student teacher why Antonio's presence was such a total shocker.

Now, I'm not claiming any responsibility for Antonio's transformation. I haven't been his teacher for over a year, and clearly the people he worked with last year guided him through some pretty amazing stuff. But I love the fact that Antonio sees art as a pathway for him, a way for him to become more engaged in life at our school, and I love that I get to maybe help him take those first steps, even if it's just getting him up onstage for an audition next week.

Because of Antonio and the dozens of other kids like him who walk into my room every single day, I am most definitely still here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

You Go, Girl . . . Eat that Pasta!

Ah . . . summer! It's a time filled with cookouts, fresh fruit, and summer blockbusters. The past few years, Hollywood has seen the value in what you could call "counterprogramming" during the summer -- releasing movies that don't involve explosions or robots or any of the mindless stuff we usually have shoved down our throats. One bit of "counterprogramming" that seems to have caught on is the release of movies geared towards adult women. I think of these films as literary chick flicks since they are based on books and feature women as their central characters; my sis refers to it as "You Go, Girl" cinema in that she says that is the response she imagines the audience is supposed to give when watching these tales. Last year, we had Julie and Julia, where Julie Powell and Julia Child found fulfillment through food and writing. This year, we get Eat, Pray, Love. If the audience I was part of this afternoon is any indication, the Vera Bradley-toting women of America are flocking to theaters en masse to gobble up one of the few films made with them in mind.

The film is based on a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert chronicling her post-divorce quest for healing and enlightenment. This quest finds Gilbert spending a year in Italy, India, and Bali (funded by a healthy book advance) where she does exactly what the title implies -- eats a lot, prays a lot, and eventually finds a way to love a lot.

I read Gilbert's book earlier this summer. I quite liked it. I found Gilbert's voice completely engaging; at times, she reminded me a lot of my best friend. I could relate to Gilbert's quest for some sort of spiritual fulfillment, and I appreciated the sort of holistic approach she took to spirituality. She wasn't advocating a particular faith, just describing what worked for her. I loved the people who populated her adventures and the warmth with which Gilbert seemed to approach life in general. I looked forward to the film if only to see the places and people Gilbert described so beautifully brought to life.

In many respects, I quite liked the film. Ryan Murphy created a lovely film to look at -- incredible scenery and the way the food was filmed makes it a must-see for fans of "food porn." (I went home after the movie and immediately made a huge plate of pasta with fresh herbs.) He keeps the most memorable characters and manages to keep things moving along at a decent pace. The film clocks in at over two hours, but it felt like a pretty quick two hours. The third act did feel a bit rushed compared to the other segments, though, which is unfortunate in that it is during her visit to Bali that Liz finds potential love with a handsome Brazilian, played here by Javier Bardem. Bardem's Felipe is so charming and richly portrayed that I wanted more of him. (Well, when isn't more Javier Bardem a good thing??) I would have preferred to see the opening scenes with Liz and her ineffectual husband (Billy Crudup) and her young actor lover (James Franco) cut down more to allow for more Bardem.

My real issue with the film, though, was Liz herself. I loved the Liz Gilbert of the book -- wry, intelligent, and conflicted. I rooted for her and identified with her. In the film, though, Liz takes the form of Julia Roberts. I'm not one of those people who rolls my eyes at the mere mention of Julia Roberts. In fact, I typically like her. When she's firing on all of her acting cylinders, you remember why she's the biggest female movie star of the past twenty years. There's a joy she brings to the screen, a glint in her eye, that can be infectious. The problem is that it's hard for Julia to become lost in a character the way that other actresses are. You never, ever forget that you're watching Julia Roberts because she rarely if ever strays from that Julia Roberts formula -- that smile, that laugh, that vocal inflection never change whether she's playing a hooker with a heart of gold, a crusading legal aide, or a writer on a spiritual quest. She's ALWAYS Julia Roberts. Because she's always Julia, you never really worry about her because Julia always pulls through and wins the guy, defeats the evil corporation, or finds peace. With another actress in the role, perhaps Liz's angst would have seemed a little more real and silenced the critics who are writing the movie off as the tale of a self-centered yuppie whiner. Because no one can ever believe that Julia has any significant problems (and certainly would never have any issues with her conscience), it's hard to believe in Liz's crisis as portrayed by Julia. There's also the fact that Julia is about a decade older than Gilbert was when she went on her own journey. For some reason, the existential angst that Liz faces seems more realistic coming from someone in her early-to-mid 30's than in her 40's. The part would have worked better in the hands of, say, Amy Adams or Jennifer Garner, but Amy and Jennifer can't open a movie like Julia can, so there you have it -- Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert whether it works or not.

I don't want this to sound like I didn't like the movie; I really did. Unlike many who've criticized the movie, I didn't find Liz self-serving or lacking in sympathy. I could relate to her need to work out a new definition of who she was and who she wanted to be. While most of us couldn't afford to take a year off to explore foreign lands (or be lucky enough to wind up in Javier Bardem's bed), I refuse to begrudge Liz because she did. Take the film for what it is -- entertaining escapism -- and leave it at that, and you'll find yourself vicariously living a pretty cool adventure through some beautiful terrain. What more could you want on a summer afternoon?

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Lazy Days Are Numbered

This time of year is always a bittersweet one for me. Today, I began my last full week of summer. Next week will be packed with unpacking my classroom, meetings, and getting things ready for another school year. On the one hand, I love this time of year. I truly love my job, and I miss my students during the summer. I love the anticipation of this time of year, wondering what the year will hold, what my new freshmen will be like, and how classes will go. I already know some new and different challenges lie ahead. We're adding two new books to our English I curriculum this year -- Elie Wiesel's Night and Sherman Alexie's awesome The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian. I'm adding Catcher in the Rye to my English Fundamentals class. I will also be hosting a student teacher this fall for the first time ever. She's a student from my alma mater. We've exchanged some emails, and I am meeting with her next week. I hope I'm a good mentor!!

On the other hand, there's also this part of me that is devastated to see the summer end. Because nine months of my year are so packed with teaching and directing and coaching, these months of summer are a welcome respite of blissful nothingness. I do love sleeping in and staying up late to read. There's also this sense of disappointment in that I often start the summer with such high hopes and plans, and then I get to these last days and realize I've not done much of what I intended. Did I paint my storage shed in the backyard? Nope. Did I undertake the Herculean task of organizing my library? Not a chance. Today, I did break down and spent two hours in the kitchen cleaning and organizing cabinets. I'm hoping later this week to tackle my linen closet which threatens to bury me under towels and sheets every time I'm brave enough to open it. I have to admit, though, that a lot of what I thought this summer would involve has not come to pass . . . and try not to beat myself up too much over that.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Philosophy of Time

I grew up, for all intents and purposes, on a college campus. Before you get images of a six-year-old Mel wandering around frat parties in a toga and learning how to tap a keg before she even learned cursive, let me explain. My dad worked for a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, his alma mater and what would become my alma mater as well. With a small school like that, a community of sorts builds around the faculty, staff, and their families. Many hours of my youth were spent at college sporting events or playing hide and seek among the maze of filing cabinets in my dad's office or visiting my dad for lunch during breaks. Many of the professors knew me in diapers and were called "Uncle" by my sis and me. When I became a student there myself, there were professors whose classes I "boycotted" because I just felt awkward taking classes with people I knew so well. When my dad died, the first people to arrive on our doorstep to offer comfort were people from the college. My love for that institution runs deep because it is my home -- emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Since graduating and starting my career, the time I spend on campus is admittedly little even though it's just located across town. Part of it is the fact that my career consumes so much of my time. Part of it is that it's a tough place to be without my dad. Just driving by the building where he worked for the majority of my life can give me a bit of a lump in my throat, and there's a small part of me that still expects to see him bouncing out the door. The times when I do tend to go back are usually to see a play or, lately, for a memorial service.

You see, those professors I grew up idolizing and eventually learning from are growing older, and despite what I may have suspected as a kid who would beg Dad to let me come have lunch with him and his friends in the Gizmo (the campus snack bar), they're proving to be mortal. In the past two years or so, three of these men who were fixtures of my youth have passed away, prompting the hosting of memorial services on campus. I always go to these services partly to pay respect to people who helped shape me but also because I kind of imagine it's something my dad would expect of me -- to go as his family representative.

I attended such a service today. As I looked around, I saw all these familiar faces -- people I've known longer than just about anyone outside of my family. There was my faculty adviser; there was the professor who taught me everything I know about writing (and grading writing); there was the woman who'd worked across the hall from my dad for decades; there was the professor who was the first one to tell me that I would be making a huge mistake if I didn't go into teaching. The thing is that these people are now, well, old. Hair is grey that didn't used to be. Weight has been gained or lost. Canes are present that weren't there before. The characters remained the same despite the betrayal of the outer shell. And then the thought occurred to me that I'M older, too. There might be grey hairs lurking under the ginger. Weight has most definitely been gained or lost (depending on when they last saw me). The little girl or saucy co-ed that exists in their memories is no more ... on the outside. It led me to ponder the very nature of time and come to the startling conclusion that time is a bitch.

As I listened to the stories that these people shared about their lost friend, I felt a profound sense of sadness. I'd lost a family friend, someone I'd never even had as a professor in class (largely because the thought of taking a philosophy class in college just intimidated the stuffing out of me). These people had lost a buddy, a partner, a friend. The stories they shared so vividly are now just memories, and the figures who populate those stories are slowly disappearing. This is a community that has been rocked by the loss of paragon after paragon, and the campus I grew up on is not the same one that some precocious little kid would grow up on today and it seems so weird to me that there are students attending the school who wouldn't understand the stories that my friends and I have of certain professors and their classes. How lucky we were to get on campus when these legends were still in their prime, before they succumbed to retirement and loss. I thought of how bonded in time my classmates and I are with classes before us in ways that younger students will never understand. And I felt sorry for those younger students. Even though I know their experience is a rich one, they are deprived of some incredible times -- both in the classroom and out.

Deeply philosophical for a Thursday afternoon in July, no?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Recipe I'll Share

Earlier this month, I said that, while I've spent the summer trying a wide variety of healthy recipes, I am reluctant to blog about them since very little of what I've been cooking has been original but rather recipes I've found on a variety of websites. I'm relenting tonight to share a recipe that's quickly become a favorite Chez Mel. This is a recipe that I feel like I've modified significantly enough that I don't feel like a plagiarist sharing it with you.

This is a super filling meal and really takes little to no time at all to put together. I suspect it'll become a regular when school starts because I can make it quickly when I'm tired after a long day of teaching, coaching, and directing.

Black Bean Wraps

1 can of black beans, drained
1 large tomato, diced
1 avocado
1 tsp of lime juice (roughly)
1/2 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
4 whole wheat tortillas
garlic powder

-- Heat the black beans. Add a couple dashes of garlic powder according to your taste.
-- Put the avocado, cilantro, lime juice, and about 1/4 cup of the diced tomato in a food processor and blend. (Yeah, you're making guacamole. If you're looking to save even more time, buy a jar of pre-made guac.)
-- On each tortilla, put a tablespoon or two of guacamole and spread. Then add beans, tomatoes, and 1/8 cup of cheese. You can also top with a little sour cream if you're so inclined.

At my house, we each eat about 2 and are very satisfied. I've toyed with using salsa in lieu of the tomatoes just for a little extra kick of flavor. These are relatively low in calories, full of protein and "good fats", and super tasty. They've been a great, light dinner on hot summer nights. Give them a whirl and see what you think.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wii Be Jammin'

This has been the summer of getting healthy again. About five years ago, I lost a lot of weight through healthy eating and an obsessive workout regimen. Five years later, I've put on a large portion of that lost weight and completely fallen out of the workout habit. I got lazy. I got complacent. And I've got a closet full of clothes that bear witness to that. My goal is to get back into those clothes. I began the process this summer with a renewed focus on what I eat and how much I eat. I've revolutionized my eating habits, introducing more fruits and vegetables and cutting back on unhealthy, processed junk foods. I could count on one hand the number of times I've eaten fast food this summer -- and those three times found me ordering a grilled chicken sandwich or a salad rather than a greasy burger and fries. (I've not eaten french fries since early June. Seriously!)

The result of this healthy eating is that I just feel better. I've lost roughly 15 pounds in about six weeks. What hasn't happened in that six weeks, though, is a renewed focus on exercise. I've talked about rejoining a gym, but I am worried that I will struggle to find time to go to the gym and will essentially be pouring money down the drain. I wake up every morning and think, "Oh, I should go for a walk" but it's too hot; "Oh, I should ride the exercise bike" but I don't feel like putting on shoes; "Oh, I should do yoga from On Demand" but I'm too lazy. I've been really disappointed in myself.

At the same time, my sis and I have been talking for about six months about buying a video game system. My motivation was initially two-fold: I wanted to be able to live stream Netflix onto my tv and I wanted to be able to play Rock Band. (That would allow me to realize my long-held dream to be a rock-n-roll drummer!) After reading and researching and talking to friends, I settled on buying a Wii. It gave me all that I wanted with an added bonus -- it would force me to get off my fat ass and be active. (And before you ask, no, Wii Fit is NOT on my wish list right now. I am just not ready to have a video game tell me how fat and out of shape I am. Maybe once I'm fitting into those clothes in the closet I'll be ready for a snarky video fitness trainer.)

I bought the Wii last week. It came with Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort. I will admit that we spent the first day or so of Wii ownership watching stuff on Netflix. I was excited to be able to watch first season episodes of Saturday Night Live; my sis was excited to find old school 90's Nickelodeon cartoons like Angry Beavers and Aah! Real Monsters. Slowly but surely, though, we've found our way into the game discs. I spent Friday afternoon while my sis was at work playing 18 holes of golf . . . and going a stunning 36 shots over par. My sis has found a talent for bowling with a score pushing 200. She also is, apparently, quite a basketball prodigy. Yesterday before we went to the movie, I played about a half hour of tennis -- and did the same this morning upon waking up.

While playing tennis yesterday, I realized I was breaking a sweat -- like pretty seriously. I did a little research and found out I'd burned close to 100 calories in that half hour. Not too shabby.

I know that the Wii cannot be my only source of exercise and that eventually I need to motivate myself to pursue some more serious outlets for fitness. But at least the Wii is putting me one step closer to those elusive clothes in the closet and making me feel a little less like a lazy slug. And if I can have a little bit of fun at the same time, how much cooler is that?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dream a Little Dream

AMC Theaters were offering dollar popcorn and sodas today, so it was the perfect time to catch a flick. I haven't had as much free time as I'd hoped this summer between acting as production manager for a local community theatre production of The Sound of Music and teaching a class at the nearby community college. There were a ton of movies playing in town that I would love to see, but my sis and I decided on Inception, figuring of all the movies playing in town, it would be the one we'd be the most disappointed not to have seen in theaters. So after a healthy breakfast of scrambled eggs with spinach and portabella mushrooms, we headed out.

I have always really admired Christopher Nolan's work. Memento is one of the best films of this century, and The Dark Knight proved that blockbuster doesn't have to be synonymous with lobotomy. Even Insomnia, which is probably the weakest of his post-Memento work, is pretty great, an overlooked gem. I went into Inception, then, with some pretty lofty expectations.

Nolan was a bit close-mouthed about this film and I purposely avoided reading many of the reviews (they just give away too much!), so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect outside of some killer visuals and probably a mind-freak of a story. That's precisely what I got. Nolan creates what is essentially a caper film set in the dreamscape. Leonardo DiCaprio (who seriously grows more appealing with each film) plays Cobb, a man who is able to invade people's dreams to extract information buried in their subconscious. He is hired by Saito, an Asian businessman (Ken Watanabe) to try to accomplish the opposite -- to invade someone's dream to plant an idea there. Cobb and his team (including Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) have to find a way to plant the idea in such a way that the "victim" (Cillian Murphy) believes that the idea originated with him. Thus begins an elaborate labyrinth of dreamscapes created by the team to accomplish their mission, a mission jeopardized by Cobb's own dream demons, specifically his wife (Marion Cotillard) who seems to be a dream saboteur.

Inception is both simple and incredibly complex. There were large chunks of time during the film where I felt like I had a permanent "WTF" look on my face as I tried to sort through the twists and turns the film kept throwing at me. When the film was over, my sis and I both looked at each other with the same bewildered expression, albeit one tempered by the exhilaration of being challenged and entertained at the same time. As we left, the people in front of us were discussing the film and trying to sort through the complexities. When was the last time you left a big Hollywood film and witnessed that?

Inception delivers on many levels -- it is smart and creative and vastly entertaining. The visuals, at times, take your breath away. Nolan is the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan wants to be -- smart, surprising, and entertaining all wrapped up into one. I appreciate that Nolan never panders to his audience; instead, he seems to expect his audience to rise to his challenge. In a summer crammed full of sequels, Nolan's originality is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Inception is a perfect film. As much as I liked it, it shared some of the same qualities that often frustrate me a bit with his work. Nolan's films often seem to suffer from a certain emotional sterility. While there may be heartbreaking things happening onscreen (Guy Pierce trying to solve his wife's murder, Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents, Batman being forced to choose between his beloved Rachel or the noble Harvey Dent), there is a detachment at play there that often keeps me from getting truly emotionally invested in what's going on. Sometimes, the actors are able to rise above the restraints Nolan has in place. (I'm thinking in particular of Maggie Gyllenhaal's final moments onscreen in The Dark Knight.) Here, there are times when DiCaprio and crew seem to be going through the motions rather than the emotions; I felt like I was being kept at arm's length rather than being truly invited into their world.

The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 28 minutes, but it honestly could have used about five minutes more just to give the audience a tiny bit more exposition. I feel pretty safe in saying that the concept of dream banditry is pretty foreign to just about every single person sitting in the theatre, and yet the film begins mid-action with absolutely no context to help the audience adjust to this new world. Yes, that's part of the high expectations Nolan places on his audience, but it can also be a bit alienating to spend the first hour or so of a film trying to figure out just the basics of the world that's being presented. Is this dream robbery common knowledge in this universe? How does one get into such a line of work? Repeated viewings might help unlock some of the riddles lurking beneath the surface of the film, but that's expecting an awful lot of people to keep coming back to the theater again and again just to grasp what should be basic plot elements. It's not bad to create a film that benefits from repeat viewings, but it shouldn't demand such a commitment of time and money from the audience that just wants to understand what the hell is going on.

On the whole, though, Inception is a good film and definitely a film that should be enjoyed on the big screen. Eat a lot of fruits and veggies before you go to increase your brain power, though, because you will definitely be giving the ol' noggin a workout for those 2-1/2 hours. After a summer filled with vampires, airbenders, predators, and Adam Sandler, doesn't your brain deserve a little something more in its entertainment? Just follow it up with a walk down the hall to see Toy Story 3 if your heart needs a little something more engaging after the brain's gotten its feast.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Culinary Plagiarist

This summer has been one of great experimentation in the kitchen. I've spent countless hours on the internet trolling the myriad of cooking sites looking for healthy recipes I can try. I've tried foods I've never had before and cooked things I've never cooked before. With very few exceptions, every recipe I've tried has been a winner. Typically, those experiments have led to a joyful Facebook status or an email shot to other friends trying to find healthy recipes. A couple friends have even suggested that I blog more about the recipes I've been whipping up.

Therein lies my ethical dilemma. As much as I wish I had, I am not inventing these recipes. I'm looking at sites like Delish, Hungry Girl, and Skinny Taste. I've also become quite fond of the recipes found at Slim Fast. Is it really all that special that I'm cooking these amazing meals if the real credit belongs to the experts who created these sites? Even if I give credit where credit is due, I still feel like I'd be cheating.

Instead, I will recommend those looking for some healthy, tasty meals, to hit any of the sites I've listed here -- or just start googling recipes. I found some great recipes using quinoa just by visiting Google. When I wanted to try my hand at making guacamole for the first time, I ended up with a ton of different variations on the recipe and was able to create a sort of hybrid recipe that worked with the ingredients I had lying around the fridge. The point is that you don't have to be a slave to the same old routine, nor do you need to keep throwing your money at Ronald McDonald to fill you full of grease and fat. You can revolutionize your diet without leaving your desk, and maybe you'll be about 15 pounds lighter after six weeks, too.